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February 7, 2013

the usps and them that hate it

Yesterday was the day that the United States Postal Service announced that it was planning on suspending regular Saturday delivery.  This was not unexpected, but of course it's still a bit of a shock to see it splashed everywhere, and additionally, it's a downright shame to see the news coupled with the concept that the issue at hand is profitability.

I take issue with that.  The Postal Service is a semi-independent government agency; it does not take taxpayer money, and it is mandated to be revenue-neutral.  Technically, were the USPS to be continually profitable, then postage rates would be decreased.  So profitability is not the issue here.  Viability is the issue.  It's a minor distinction, but can we shut up about profitability for one second of our American lives please thank you?

And the other thing to keep in mind is, it is not the Internet/decreased paper mail volume that is slowly strangling the USPS.  Oh that's certainly not helping, but the friendly shove over the ledge came from Congress (as reported by Heidi Moore):

Since 2006, the postal service has been required - unlike any federal agency - to pre-fund its retirement and healthcare benefits to workers. This costs it about $5.5bn a year. Currently, the post office has paid in $330bn for benefits, but the Office of Personnel Management recently told Williams that it will need $394bn to satisfy the legal requirement.

The extra cash demand caused the USPS to miss some loan payments late last year, adding to the problem.  Which problem is a little bit the problem of delivering mail in a digital world, and a lotta bit a Congress that hates municipal unions on principle plus also would love to see the endeavor in private hands, where money can be made off it.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:08 AM

February 6, 2013

kareem abdul-jabbar is awesome

Guess the author of this passage, defending a contemplation of the HBO series "Girls" that he wrote:
There was much reaction. Some questioned why a man my age would watch a show about girls in their twenties, as if they'd just discovered me hanging around a school playground with a shopping bag full of candy in one hand a fluffy puppy in the other. Of course, these critics are right. When I read Moby Dick I first had to convince the bookseller that I was a former whaler named Queequeg. When I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I had to pretend I was a depressed white woman with daddy issues. Don't worry, I used a fake ID.

It's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, my new hero, and yours.

And the especially fun thing about our appreciation of Abdul-Jabbar is that in doing so we are within a shadow's width of confirming his premise: what about being a basketball star in the 70s and 80s disqualifies him from having something to say (and well) concerning arts and entertainment?

Best not to think about it too long.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:36 PM

what exactly is going on in the trial of john liu's bundlers?

This is a matter of parochial interest (viz., New York City politics), but it's sufficiently weird to share with the world at large.

So there's this young man, John Liu.  He was a City Councilman from Queens, ran a well-funded campaign for comptroller in 2009, won.  Word on the street is that he's ambitious and a little bit dirty.

And I hate to cast aspersions, as he is the first city-wide Asian elected official, but his dirtiness was somewhat confirmed by the fact that there were fundraising irregularities reported by the NYT, culminating in the indictments of Liu's campaign financier and a fundraiser for wire fraud and obstruction of justice.  (That is of course not an indictment of Liu himself, but still.)

So that's the backstory.  Yesterday, the trial of the two Liu campaign figures (being tried together, FWIW) was delayed for a couple months due to the involuntary commitment and hospitalization of one of the defendants, Xing Wu Pan.  It goes like this: the judge announces the fact that Pan has been thrown in the mental hospital, as they say, and that the trial will be delayed.  Then this happens:

Irwin Rochman, a lawyer for Mr. Pan, told the judge he had spoken with Mr. Pan and found him to be coherent. "We've seen no diminution in his ability to understand and communicate with us," Mr. Rochman said.

Couple things here.  First, the timing of the trial is important.  John Liu wants very badly for the trial to wrap up soon, as he will begin to campaign in earnest for the mayor's office in the spring — if the trial resolves now, maybe it will be further from the voters' minds.  Another thing, the "feigned nervous collapse" is a dime store tactic of the defense, used to reduce culpability or delay the trial.

But you've got the judge announcing the involuntary commitment, and the defense claiming that the defendant is perfectly coherent and let's give this show on the road.

So what exactly is going on?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:59 AM

February 5, 2013

maria bustillos on college edumacation

God, I hate to give this, the Money, away, but last week The Awl ran a very exhaustive/incisive piece by Maria Bustillos about Udacity and the looming general threat of MOOCs (massively open online courses), the newest latest Ark of the Covenant for the educational-industrial complex, and this paragraph is the strongest argument for Why You Care I've read:
Let's put ourselves in the undergraduate student's position. Someone eighteen years old, embarking on an academic career, might well ask: Will this world welcome me, welcome my potential abilities? Or am I being trained for a life on a hamster wheel? Is my value simply the value of a hamster that can run, a bioform for the Matrix to plug into and extract my essence for the benefit of a larger machine? Is this world full of possibilities, is it asking me to contribute, welcoming my contribution, valuing me for the things known and unknown that I may one day be able to contribute? Or am I being wronged from the start, treated as a "customer," which all too often means, alas, someone to fleece?

Bustillos ties in the general topic to the "Waiting For Superman" style carpet-bombing reform of American public education, and rightly so.  You may think the topic one of pedagogy or public policy, but it's much more, much more important: is what we are trying to do to the developing brains of student a per se goal, above and beyond market forces, or is it yet another process ripe for reverse engineering by the Chicago School of Economics?

It's worth your time.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:10 PM

February 4, 2013

super bowl cone of silence

I decided to try something new/old last night.  Despite the near-overwhelming urge, particularly during commercials, and especially during the black-out, I avoided social media for the entirety of the Super Bowl.  It was hard, acutely so during times when the person you're speaking to is tap-tap-tapping away, but I learned something very important:

It takes about half a decade for a new communications technology to insinuate itself seamlessly into what we call "the everyday," and after such point, it's no longer technology intruding into life, it's just life.

But it was nice to watch a football game for myself, and not have it watched for me by the chorus.  Brief thoughts: what a great game, boy did CBS drop the ball, and that blackout means that New Orleans won't get another Super Bowl for at least ten years.

Having said that, I don't suppose anyone printed out Twitter last night so I can catch up?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:58 AM